3 more retirees join back-to-work club, draw pay, pensions

CORRECTION: David Guntharp, who was director of the Department of Community Correction, and Ronald Dobbs, who was assistant director institutions cq of the Department of Correction, are no longer on the state payroll, prison spokesman Dina Tyler said. They were included the list in this article.

— Three high-ranking executives have joined the state government’s retire-and-return-to-work crowd to draw both salaries and pensions.

The state has more than 500 employees on its payroll who previously retired from state jobs, a state office said.

The three new additions to the group are Department of Workforce Services Director Artee Williams, Office of Excise Tax Administration Administrator Tom Atchley, and acting Livestock and Poultry Commission Director Earl Kimbrell.

Gov. Mike Beebe reappointed Williams after a 30-day retirement.

“You can always hire somebody cheaper,” Beebe said Tuesday. “The question is: Are you hiring somebody cheaper who can do as good a job? That was a critical position that, especially in light of the unemployment issues going forward, Artee’s expertise was really, really needed.”

The governor defended the rehiring of Williams on the basis of Williams’ overall performance and, in particular, his management of the state’s unemployment trust fund.

Williams worked for the state for 40 years and three months. He retired July 1. His salary was $136,601 a year. He returned to work Monday at that salary, according to the state Office of Personnel Management.

Critics of the retire-andreturn practice dub it “double-dipping.”

Some of them seized on Williams’ rehiring to call for restrictions.

“Arkansas’ Public Employee Retirement System continues to be abused by individuals unwilling to hold themselves to the highest ethical standards,” Rep. Allen Kerr, R-Little Rock, said when he announced he would ask for a legislative committee study of the matter.

In this year’s legislative session, Kerr sponsored Act 40 to clarify what “terminate” means when state employees and elected officials terminate employment, which they must do to be eligible for benefits.

Legislation was proposed after Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s articles in 2009 about county elected officials who “retired” by taking themselves off the public payroll for three months while continuing to actually do the job, then resuming a slot on the public payroll.

After finding that the officials did not meet the termination requirement, the public employees pension system cut benefits to several of the local officials.

The Legislature in 2009 extended the minimum separation period to 180 days in Act 657. Previously, the minimum separation had been 30 days for state, county and city employees and 90 for elected officials.

But Act 657 also allowed participants in the public employees system’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) on Jan. 1, 2009, to have the 180-day separation requirement waived and return to jobs covered by the system after 30 days’ retirement.

That exempted about 1,800 employees, meaning they could still do the 30-day retirement and return to work with both a pension and a paycheck.

Williams, Atchley and Kimbrell were among those this provision applied to.

Kerr voted for the law, according to the General Assembly’s website.

Another new law, Act 774 of 2011, extended the required separation period to a year for elected officials if they receive credit for two years of service for every year of actual service.

Other legislation was proposed this year. House Bill 1040 by Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, was cosponsored by Kerr. It would have largely done away with retire-and-go-back-to-work by most members of the retirement systems. But English never asked the Legislature’s retirement committee to vote on the bill.

“There was a huge outcry from city and county people and teachers,” she said. “That would have gone down to tremendous defeat.”

English said she’ll consult Kerr, Rep. Tim Summers, RBentonville, and Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, to “try to look at other alternatives.”

Last October, Kerr told the

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

he planned to introduce legislation this year to lengthen the amount of time officials and employees must stay retired, even if they are in the deferred-retirement option plan. But he didn’t.

“We kind of got talked out of it” by teacher and public employees retirement system officials, he said in an interview, and “instead [focused] on changing definitions of terminate.”

In retrospect, he wishes he had introduced legislation to extend the separation to 180 days even for pension system members who were in the deferred plan on Jan. 1, 2009, he said.

He plans to introduce such a bill in 2013 if he’s re-elected, Kerr said.

The governor, when asked whether it is time to ban “double dipping,” said he thinks “they have pretty much banned that practice, except for the ones that were grandfathered-in.

“If they want to change it going forward, I have zero problem with it,” he said. “I don’t plan to retire and come back in.”

Another new law, Act 38 of 2011, says that when a participant in the public employees system’s DROP stops participating in it, he is not eligible for employment in any position covered by state retirement systems.

That law, too, included an exemption for members who were in the deferred retirement plan as of Jan. 1, 2009, said Jay Wills, an attorney for the system.

Key, co-chairman of the retirement committee, said he didn’t know whether the Legislature should ban “double dipping.”

Putting “some triggers in there [and] better justification and better process,” are options, he said.

“There may be situations where it is necessary, but I don’t know that it is necessary in each situation,” he said.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, state agencies on the Arkansas Administrative Statewide Information System reported 6,645 employees have retired since July 1, 2001, and 980 of them have been rehired.

Of those, 521 are now on the state payroll, the office reported.

Two years ago, then-state Sen. Steve Faris, D-Central, who sponsored the 2009 law requiring a minimum separation period of six months, said the number of brief retirements among state employees was more than he envisioned in 1999 when he sponsored the law allowing them.

Since July, 1, 2010, at least 83 employees have been rehired after retiring, according to the personnel management office.

Atchley, the state’s excise tax administrator, retired July 1 at an annual salary of $102,891. He returned to work Aug. 1 at the same salary.

Tim Leathers, deputy director for the Department of Finance and Administration, said Atchley worked for the state 38 years before retirement, including 11 as the excise tax administrator.

“Tom has some experience that we need right now, that we need in that position,” Leathers explained. “We are in the process of converting our tax system into an integrated tax system, so it is critical that we do that right now, and Tom has been right in the middle of that, and we thought we needed his expertise for that. He’s also been our expert on the streamlined sales tax.”

Asked whether it would have been cheaper to hire someone else, Leathers said the department wouldn’t have saved “a whole lot” if it hired a replacement at the entry level salary. Entry level pay is $88,957 a year, he said.

According to the personnel management office, Earl Kimbrell was rehired on March 8 as director of the Livestock and Poultry Commission at an annual salary of $97,546 after retiring on Jan. 1 as deputy director at the same salary.

Kimbrell worked for the state for 39 1/2 years before retiring. Beebe asked him to come back as acting director after the death of commission director Jon Fitch, said Lea Kimbrell, assistant personnel officer for the commission. (She is married to Kimbrell’s nephew, but was hired by the commission prior to her marriage, she said.)

Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the governor hasn’t decided who he’ll offer the director’s job to, but viewed Kimbrell as “a good person to keep the ship steered correctly.”

Some employees who retire from state jobs take up different state jobs when they return to the payroll. The Game and Fish Commission hired Andrew Bass on Jan. 18 as human-resources administrator for $83,741 a year after he retired July 1, 2010, as the Bureau of Legislative Research personnel review administrator at $114,689 a year, according to the personnel management office.

When asked about hiring Bass, commission director Loren Hitchcock said he “looked at the qualified applicants, and what their resume contained” in light of what he deemed to be “the collective best interest” for the commission and its employees.

Asked whether he could have hired somebody for less, Hitchcock said he didn’t think so under the circumstances.

Attributes Bass “brought to the table” included “institutional knowledge, long tenure with the legislative process, pay plan development and [Office of Personnel Management] coordination,” Hitchcock said.

At the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System, director George Hopkins said about 3,800 of the system’s retirees return to work each year. School districts pay about $12 million a year to the system under a 2009 law requiring them to pay 14 percent of these employees’ salary to the system and that’s helped reduce the number of years it would take to pay off its unfunded liabilities, he said.

If a system member reaches the age of 65 and retires, there is no required separation period before they can return to work, Hopkins said. If a member hasn’t reached 65 but has 38 years or more of service, the separation period is a month, he said.

A member who hasn’t reached 65 and has fewer than 38 years of service must wait 180 days under a 2009 law, he said.

“There would be significant opposition in the education community about just a strict prohibition ‘You cannot come back to work,’” he said. “In certain areas, it would be devastating to certain school districts that are pretty isolated if they have a teacher leave, and then [they don’t] have a biology teacher who has retired, or somebody who can come in and pinch hit if somebody gets sick or leaves, until they can recruit somebody else.”